Baltimore City Violated Evicted Tenants’ Constitutional Rights by Allowing Personal Property to be Taken

Conor B. O'Croinin
Conor B. O'Croinin
Ariella E. Muller
Ariella E. Muller

A Baltimore City ordinance that deems abandoned all personal property left at the time of an eviction, violated tenants’ constitutional right to due process, according to a district court ruling. The decision is the result of a pro bono lawsuit brought by Zuckerman Spaeder on behalf of two former tenants of a Baltimore rental home. 

After legal proceedings involving their eviction, the plaintiffs arranged for a moving truck to be used on August 1, 2019. However, the eviction proceeded on July 31, when the plaintiffs were not at home and had no ability to retrieve their property. At that time, their landlord texted them to say that “everything in and on the property are my possession per Balt city law.”

The landlord was allowed to take their possessions, without providing an opportunity for them to be reclaimed, because of a Baltimore City ordinance designed to keep city streets free of evicted tenants’ items. Section 8A-4 of the city’s housing code provides that, “[a]ll property in or about the leased premises at the time that the warrant of restitution is executed is abandoned.” It further requires landlords to bring the property to a landfill, donate it, or dispose of it using another legal means, which includes the possibility of keeping it themselves or selling to third parties.

In a thorough opinion in favor of the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, Judge Deborah Boardman of the U.S. District Court in Maryland said that Section 8A-4 “violated their due process rights because they received inadequate notice and had no opportunity to be heard” and that “the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required, at a bare minimum, the City to provide the plaintiffs with an opportunity to retrieve, after the eviction, the possessions they did not intend to abandon.”

“The unfortunate consequence of Baltimore City’s housing ordinance is that clean streets are prioritized over tenants’ property rights,” said Zuckerman Spaeder partner Conor B. O’Croinin. “The court’s emphatic ruling leaves no doubt that Baltimore is violating evicted tenants’ constitutional rights by giving them no ability to retrieve their personal property.”

The court also firmly rejected Baltimore City’s argument that it was not responsible for the former tenants’ losses because they were caused by a private citizen. In her ruling, Judge Boardman said, “The plaintiffs’ eviction and the contingent loss of their possessions unfolded precisely how § 8A directed. In such cases, the municipality’s responsibility is obvious.” She went on to dismiss the idea that the city could not both keep its streets clean and protect tenants’ rights, saying, “It is difficult to imagine how any additional procedural safeguard would burden the City’s interest in keeping public property clear of eviction chattels.”

In addition to Mr. O’Croinin, the case team included Zuckerman Spaeder associate Ariella E. Muller and co-counsel Joseph Mack of the Law Offices of Joseph S. Mack. The case is Marshall Todman, et al. v. the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, et al., 1:19-cv-03296.
 

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Kalie Walrath
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